Tuesday, February 15, 2011

"Marco Polo"

Aired Feb 22 - April 4, 1964

Episode 1 – The Roof of the World
Episode 2 – The Singing Sands
Episode 3 – Five Hundred Eyes
Episode 4 – The Wall of Lies
Episode 5 – Rider From Shang-Tu
Episode 6 – Mighty Kublai Khan
Episode 7 – Assassin at Peking

Story 4

Written by John Lucarotti

Directed by Waris Hussein (Episode 1-3, 5-7)

& John Crockett (Episode 4)


Arriving in Central Asia in 1289, Ian realizes that the footprint could be just an ordinary one enlarged by the snow melting. A more serious problem soon presents itself as the Doctor reports that the TARDIS has developed a major fault: all the lights have failed, the water supply has been affected and the heating is inoperative. As Barbara points out, they are now in danger of freezing to death.

The Doctor and his companions encounter the famous Venetian explorer Marco Polo, and join his caravan as it makes its way from the Pamir Plateau, across the barren Gobi Desert to reach the court of Kublai Khan in imperial Cathay. Polo is accompanied by a young woman named Ping Cho who is to be married to an elderly aristocrat, and Tegana, a warlord in the service of Khan's rival Noghai. Polo seizes the TARDIS, intending to use it as a gift to persuade the Khan to allow him to return home after many years in his service.

Having witnessed many incredible sights, repaired the TARDIS, and survived a variety of dangers orchestrated by the duplicitous Tegana, they eventually arrive at Kublai Khan's Summer Palace in Shang-tu, where the Doctor strikes up an extraordinary friendship with the now-aged ruler. They move on at last to the even more sumptuous Imperial Palace in Peking, where the travelers manage to save the Khan from an assassination attempt by Tegana.

In the confusion that follows, Polo gives the TARDIS crew the key in gratitude. It is also revealed that man Ping Cho was to marry has died, leaving her free of her duty and in the care of the Khan. The TARDIS crew make a quick goodbye and the Khan and his court watch as it vanishes before their eyes. In thanks for his loyalty, the Khan releases Polo from his service, and allows him to return to Venice.


As stated in my second post, Doctor Who stories were originally supposed to alternate between science fiction and historical stories.  Some could argue that the majority of An Unearthly Child is one of these historical stories, but in truth it's more of a pre-historical. Marco Polo is the first true historical and it's also one of the very best.

Although we no longer have the full visuals of the program to go off of, it's clear from what we do have that this was a very well designed and directed serial. There's a sense of opulence and a wealth of authenticity that you can pick up, not only from the photos that remain, but also from little details in the script. This sense of atmosphere is really effective, as is the fact that story clearly takes place over a very long period of time; weeks or perhaps even months. All of this grounds the story in a very strong sense of place, which would of course be vital in a historical.

As for the script itself, it confirms that John Lucarotti was one of the best to write for the series, and may have been the best writer of the historical stories. The eponymous character is written incredibly well. Marco Polo is a man who is decent and honorable, a man who might be the hero the story if he were not consumed by a very understandable motivation; a burning desire to finally return home after years in a foreign land. This fatal flaw is what blinds him to the manipulations of Tegana. This allows him to be an obstacle for our heroes, without being a villain. It's a type of character we would rarely, if ever, see again in the classic series; a good man who is simply wrong about some assumptions.

He is matched by Tegana, the true villain of the piece. But even here, his villainy is more specific and grounded than we often see. He has clearly seen that Polo is an honest man with the failing that he often sees good in others, and Tegana uses that to his advantage. He is just helpful enough to Polo to get his way. But he also recognizes that Polo's yearning for home is a weakness, as well, and he exploits that once he sees Polo pin his hopes on his gift of the TARDIS.

This battle of wits and wills, with its numerous reversals, is captivating. No mean feat, considering one can only experience it through reconstructions that do not provide a moving image. The TARDIS crew continue to be spectacular, with some great action-man moments from Ian, and several very funny moments involving the Doctor and the Khan. Even the supporting cast, from Ping Cho to the Khan to various bandits, servants and courtiers, are all interesting and well-played.

Marco Polo is one of the most effervescent and enjoyable adventures of the Hartnell era, and a treat to listen to; the first brick in the theory that there simply wasn't a bad historical.